When you think of Akira Kurosawa what comes to mind first? Fractured storytelling? Cinematic battles? How about war propaganda? No? Thought not.
Part 2: The Most Beautiful (1944)
Going into this voyage of discovery, I had no idea this was coming but then the early years of Kurosawa are not oft talked about and to an extent I now understand why. Made in the winding down days of World War 2, Kurosawa made this in response to wartime censors who felt Sanshiro Sugata wasn’t hitting the mark in terms of getting the Japanese people inspired for war. They had a point as in its released form it’s a film about a man realising that he doesn’t have to let anger dictate his life, its certainly not a film you imagine getting people pumped up for War.
The Most Beautiful however is bare-faced in its machine-tooled purpose to inspire a nation and watching it now, it feels almost parodically so. The opening gives us women crying over increased production targets needed in the weapons factory they work in but it is revealed they are crying because they believe they can do more, something which if made now would be laughed out of the screening room. A central character gets into severe health trouble because of her commitment to the cause, another doesn’t attend a parent’s funeral to instead focus on hitting these targets and in all, the message seems to be work yourself to death for your country and if you don’t, you’re not honourable.
In fairness, this kind of filmmaking exists now. Looking at a film like American Sniper where Bradley Cooper’s is held up as a figurehead who, at least in the film, is a fairly terrible person in his personal life but certainly is good at War, the techniques are maybe more subtle these days but at least Kurosawa was doing this in a time of War and so has to be judged accordingly. It was made in a time of great cultural and political pressure and in all fairness, the depiction of women is actually rather ahead of its time, head of the women’s faction Watanabe, played by Kurosawa’s wife of over 40 years Yôko Yaguchi is a strong, charming presence who lends depth to her role throughout and the depiction of the building of tension is well handled.
The Most Beautiful is definitively for completionists only but I’m glad I watched it if only to get a feel for what a restricted Kurosawa can do.